MHR Primer: The Urban Meyer Offense in Denver? (Part 1)

"There's no such thing as luck, there's a big word called investment. If there was luck, why work as hard as we do? I've never been involved in a game where the most invested team lost." Urban Meyer


Ever since Tim Tebow exploded onto the scene as Denver's starting quarterback -- and, incidentally, led the Broncos on a six-game winning streak and their first post season victory since 2005 -- there have been any number of "truisms" bruited about the offense Tebow ran at Florida until they have taken on the facade of "common knowledge." After all, everyone knows:

Quarterbacks trained in the spread offense in college can't make it in the NFL.

Drew Brees and Joe Montana just might take exception to this.

Running quarterbacks can't make it in the NFL.

Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Randall Cunningham and Fran Tarkenton might take exception to this.

Tim Tebow came out of a running offense.

Urban Meyer might take exception to this (Tebow's passing will be addressed in Part 3 of this series).

The purpose of this three-part MHR series is to attempt to dispel some of the misconceptions being promoted about Meyer's offense -- particularly since there's a good chance we will see some version of it come September 2012. The first part in the series will look at the man and philosophy behind Meyer's offense. The second and third parts will look more specifically at the running attack and the passing attack respectively.

Let's jump into it.

If you haven't caught on by now -- and from some things previously posted -- I have become quite a fan of the Urban Meyer offense, particularly in light of what it might do for the Broncos. What we saw in 2011 was the dimmest reflection of what Meyer taught Tebow in Florida. This was due, in large part, to the fact that the Broncos had not intended to go this direction and found themselves trying to install an unfamiliar playbook in the middle of the season. Mike McCoy -- Denver's Offensive Coordinator -- as much as admitted that Tebow was explaining the plays to him, often during the games.

The Man Behind the Offense


Urban Meyer has been involved in football coaching since 1985 when he got his start as a high school coach in Ohio. From there he spent two years as an offensive assistant at Ohio State University where he worked with the Buckeyes' tight ends and wide receivers. The Ohio State position was followed by two years at Illinois State where Meyer coached on both sides of the ball working with the Redbird's linebackers, quarterbacks and wide receivers. The next five years were spent as the wide receivers coach at Colorado State University. Five more years were invested as Notre Dame's wide receivers coach.

Meyer received his first head coaching position in 2001 when he took over the reins of Bowling Green's football program. The two years spent as the Falcons' head coach were followed by two years as the head coach at Utah. The 2004 Meyer-led Utes became the first school from a non-automatically qualifying conference to earn a BCS bowl bid. He developed quarterback Alex Smith (25 games, 389/587 (66.3%) passing for 5203 yards, 47 touchdowns, and 8 intereceptions, 286 rushes for 1072 yards and 15 touchdowns) into the #1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. In the fall of 2005, Meyer took over as the head coach at the University of Florida. During his time with Florida, Meyer's team won two national championships and saw a quarterback win the the Heisman Trophy. Meyer retired at the end of the 2010 season for health and family reasons. He was coaxed back into coaching when he was asked to become the new head coach of the Ohio State University Buckeyes.

What is important in all of this is what Urban Meyer, along with his offensive coordinator Dan Mullen have accomplished. They did not create something new nor never seen before. The offense that they developed cannot even be considered unique.

Meyer and Mullen met while they were both on the staff at Notre Dame. When Meyer moved to Bowling Green, he took Mullen with him. It was at this time that they began looking closely at the work of coaches like Joe Gibbs and Dennis Erickson who were key in introducing the one-back offense, Scott Linehan who was one of the early proponents of a spread offense. Meyer took his staff to the midwest to learn techniques from Linehan at Louisville and from the coaching staffs at Purdue, Northwestern and West Virginia. From these programs, Meyer learned keys to one-back offenses, spread offenses, the passing attack of Purdue and an organized, focused way of approached the game of football. Meyer and his staff wanted to blend ideas from the various programs they visited. What they created can be best described as a hybrid offense.

The Philosophy Behind the Offense


Meyers and his staff created an offense designed to be run from the shotgun, that would spread the field, that featured an effective passing attack, run the ball well and include the option running game. This really just sounds like what any good offense would want to do. In fact, we should be aware that this was what Northwestern and West Virginia had been doing for years. Meyers patterned his passing attack on the type of offense being run by Purdue and Louisville -- quick passes involving quick shallows, pivots and other quick moves. Meyer also installed a strong play-action component to the passing attack. The running attack was based on the Gibbs and Erickson one-back plays, though Meyer preferred to run them from the shotgun. The base offense used a shotgun, spread formation in which a player would go into motion in the backfield that then turned into an option running attack. Meyer's was aiming for a more pro-style approach to his offense.

The first step to this was to identify a core of plays, referred to as "constraint plays." Coaches draw up plays on their computers and whiteboards which would -- in a perfect world -- work every time a defense set up in a Cover 2, or against a four-man front and result in a long passing or running gain. Sadly, the world of the NFL is far from being a perfect world for the coaches. Constraint plays are what coaches use to try to get as close as possible to that perfect world. They are that small core of plays that you use to make a defensive pay for "cheating" on their defense. For example, the coach notices that one of the defense's safeties is starting to cheat up in response to the running game. So, the coach calls for a play action pass to burn him for his choice. Constraint plays are those that are used to try to keep a defense "honest," by having to account for all potential playmakers, instead of being able to focus on just one or two.

This works out in a variety ways in the Meyer offense. For example, let's say the defense has dropped two safeties back into coverage. The constraint plays have forced the defense to make sure all the receivers are covered, which results in a numerical advantage in the tackle box for the offense to exploit with a run. If, on the other hand, the defense drops into a single safety deep look, the constraint plays force the defense to take away the numerical advantage in the box for a run which opens up the passing game for the offense while still allowing for effective protection of the quarterback. If the coverage is soft, the offense will look to the underneath routes. If the defense opts for a press man coverage, the offense chooses routes designed to be more effective against those.

Here's an example of a play sequence for this offense. The team is running the option play -- reading the defensive end -- and ripping off long gains on the ground. The defense catches on and a linebacker cheats up and starts destroying the option play. But wait, the linebacker cheating in means he's no longer covering his assignment -- say the slot receiver -- so you throw a quick short pass or a screen to that receiver. After a few more successful runs with a receiver running down the middle, the coach notices that the safety is beginning to creep up in run support. So, the coach calls a play action pass. If the safety drops back (like he should), the quarterback checks down to a different receiver, or runs it himself. If the safety comes up to play the run, the quarterback and receiver burn him with a long pass play.

The bottom line is, when facing a disciplined defense in which the players keep to their assignments, the Meyer offense runs its basic package of plays and relies on the offensive players to execute better than the defenders. When the defense gets out of position or tries to get "tricky," the Meyer offense turns to its constraint plays to make the defense pay for their choice. This, in turn, limits the defense's options as they now have to guard against the constraint plays also.

It must be recognized that Meyer's offense was a spread offense long before it became an option offense. The purpose of the spread is to stretch the defense horizontally in order to create lanes for the running and passing. By having multiple options for the offense on each play, the offense tries to eliminate options for the defense to use in response. It is the offensive equivalent to Woody Hayes' strategy of forcing the offense into as small a space as possible in order to limit their choices. Meyer's offense stretches the defense from sideline to sideline and forces the defense to play eleven-on-eleven instead of ten-on-eleven. The scheme tries to provide the receivers with a chance to go one-on-one (a matchup they might win or they might not). Even more importantly, the blocking scheme does not rely on the blockers ability to force defenders to go somewhere they don't want to go but rather uses double teams, traps and lead blockers to open lanes for the runners. It combines the NFL-coveted qualities of power, strength and quickness with intelligence -- the ability to apply those qualities where they are most likely to be successful. Chris Brown of Smart Football, at blogspot.com, has characterized Meyer's approach to blocking as the football equivalent of the martial arts -- discerning the opponents' weaknesses and hitting them there.

In Part 2 of this series we will be looking at the Meyer offense's approach to the running game and in Part 3 we will be looking at the passing game.

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